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American Passages: A Literary Survey

Masculine Heroes Corridos

[7354] José Guadalupe Posada, Verdaderos Versos de Macario Romero [The Truth about Macario Romero] (1912), courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-DIG-ppmsc-04557].

The corrido, a narrative ballad usually sung or spoken to music, was the most important literary genre of the southwestern border region, where it achieved its greatest popularity between the 1830s and the 1930s. Developed by Mexicans and Mexican Americans living in the former Mexican province of Nuevo Santander (currently Texas, New Mexico, Chihuahua, Coahuila, and Tamaulipas), corridos drew upon traditional Spanish ballad forms to articulate singers’ experiences of cultural conflict in the borderlands. The word “corrido” is derived from the Spanish correr (“to run”), signaling the rapid tempo and brisk narrative pace that usually characterize these songs. Corridos do not have refrains or choruses; rather, the lyrics move the listener through the narrative quickly and without digression. Often composed within a short musical range of less than a single octave, corridos enable the performer to sing at high volume. Singers are often accompanied by guitar or the bajo sexto, a twelve-string guitar popular in Texas and New Mexico.

Corridos were usually composed to record political and social conflicts, current events, and extraordinary occurrences. While they were sometimes printed and distributed as broadsides, their primary mode of circulation was through oral performance. Some of the most famous of these broadsides were illustrated by Mexican artist José Guadalupe Posada on topics such as the Ku Klux Klan, the American “mosquito” (invaders), and episodes of violence in the Southwest. In this way, Latinos’ borderland experiences–and political protests–were recorded in the memories and artistic expression of the people who learned the corridos. Many nineteenth-century corridos are still sung and recorded, and Mexicans and Mexican Americans continue to compose new corridos: popular musicians who use the corrido form include Los Tigres del Norte and the late singer Selena. Today, as then, corridos function as a kind of “musical newspaper” of the poor and oppressed; as musician and author Elijah Wald exposes in Narcocorrido: A Journey into the Music of Drugs, Guns, and Guerrillas, contemporary corridos record the stories of drug traffickers, government corruption, bloody battles in Chiapas, and immigrant hardship in the United States.

Traditional corridos were a product of the dynamic culture within the border communities, where Mexicans, European Americans, and Native Americans vied for land rights, employment opportunities, and political authority. Expressing intercultural conflict from a Mexican point of view, the ballads often focus on an “outlaw” hero who defends his rights–as well as those of other Mexicans–against the unjust authority of Anglo rinches (“rangers”) or other officials empowered by the American government after its annexation of Texas. The rinches were the Texas Rangers, who are sometimes celebrated outside of the corrido tradition as proponents of law and order in the Southwest. In reality, the Rangers were part of the European-American colonization movement and were partially responsible for the enormous number of lynchings of Mexicans and Chicanos in Texas and other areas of the Southwest.

Corridos serve as records of these and other injustices. Most corrido heroes are driven to crime only as a last resort or out of an honorable desire to avenge wrongs that have been perpetrated against them. For example, Gregorio Cortez kills two Texas sheriffs after they shoot his brother, and Rito Garcia shoots Anglo officers after they invade his home without a warrant. Corridos also celebrate figures who challenge political boundaries through their labor, such as vaqueros (“cowboys”) and smugglers. “Kiansis,” a corrido that asserts the vaqueros‘ superiority to Anglo cowboys, chronicles the Mexican cattlehands’ drive into the American territory of Kansas. These songs provide an important counter-story to western novelist Owen Wister’s famous racist claim that only Anglos make good cowboys. Wister is the author of The Virginian, an early cowboy novel, and was a classmate of President Theodore Roosevelt (a popular target of early corridos’ fury), who led the Rough Riders.

Some corridos close with their heroes’ triumphant return to the Mexican community, while others narrate their capture, imprisonment, or execution. Whatever their fate, the men who are the subject of corridos are always celebrated as heroes because they defend their rights courageously and skillfully. Effectively translating political ideals of protest and resistance into a popular form, corridos functioned as powerful expressions of Mexican and Mexican American cultural pride. Today, they are recognized as one of the most important foundations for the rich Chicano literary tradition that developed in the twentieth century.

Teaching Tips

  • After your students read the featured corridos in their English translations (located in the archive), ask them to look at the Spanish lyrics as you play a recording of a corrido being performed. Even if they do not understand Spanish, they can focus on the rhythm and repetition of sounds in the original corrido through the lyrics. Ask them to think about how the music influences the effect of the ballad and what is lost in the English translation. Since this musical genre will be unfamiliar to many students, it might also be useful to play some political protest music that may be more familiar to them–sixties folk songs, for example. You can also ask students to compare the corrido in form and content to English-language ballads from the same region and era, for example, “The Dying Cowboy” and “The Dying Ranger.” What rhetorical strategies does each use to develop sympathy (pathos) and to emphasize the moral character (ethos) of the protagonist?
  • Traditionally, corridos are composed by men, performed by men, and written about men. Ask students to consider how ideals of masculinity inform the corridos in the archive. What makes the male subject a hero? How does he deal with adversity, capture, or defeat? How is masculinity tied to ethnicity in these corridos? Ask your students to pay attention not only to the corridos’ portraits of the courageous deeds of their heroes, but also to their descriptions of men who cry and men who complain.

Author Questions

  1. Comprehension: What motivates the heroes of the corridos in the archive? What kinds of values do they espouse? How do they compare to their Anglo adversaries and rivals?
  2. Context: Compare the corrido about Gregorio Cortez to John Ridge’s novel, Joaquin Murieta. What do these title characters have in common? How do they interact with Anglo authority figures? How do their stories end? How does the corrido as a genre impact the portrait of Gregorio Cortez? How would Ridge’s account of Murieta’s life be different if it had been written as a corrido?
  3. Exploration: While corridos were most popular between 1830 and 1930, they are still composed and sung today. Late-twentieth-century corridos include the “Recordado al Presidente,” about the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in Texas, and the “Corrido de Cesar Chavez,” about Chavez’s organization of the United Farm Workers and their successful protest for better working conditions. How do the lyrics of these later corridos compare to the earlier corridos? What kinds of shifts in values do you see? How are the heroes of these later ballads different from heroes like Gregorio Cortez or Jacinto Trevino? How are they similar?
  4. Exploration: Sandra Cisneros’s House on Mango Street consists of a series of vignettes, each of which revolves around the young heroine, Esperanza. What analogies do you see between the structure of characterization used in the corridos and in Cisneros’s novel?

Selected Archive Items

[5615] Anonymous, Disturnell Map of Mexico (c. 1850),
courtesy of the Benson Latin American Collection, University of Texas at Austin.
Although the treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo officially ended the Mexican-American War in 1848, disputes continued between the Mexican and U.S. governments concerning, among other issues, the border of Texas.

[5936] José Guadalupe Posada, Corrido: Fusilamiento Bruno Martinez (1920s),
courtesy of Davidson Galleries.
Political and social statements figured importantly in Posada’s art. This Revolutionary-era print shows a charro bravely facing a group of onrushing federales. The title translates as The Execution of Bruno Martinez.

[6318] Lee Russell, Backyards of Mexican Homes. Alamo, Texas (1939),
courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC USF34-032141-D].
Corridos grew out of the experience of the borderlands of the Southwest. As an oral history of a people, they document the everyday lives of the people who live in the lands that were once part of Mexico.

[6392] Mrs. Henry Krausse, Corrido de los Rangers (Ballad of the Rangers) (1939),
courtesy of the Library of Congress.
Corridos often expressed discontent with the oppression of Chicanos in the borderlands. This corrido tells of the 1912 feud between Texas Rangers and Brownsville officials.

[7354] José Guadalupe Posada, Verdaderos Versos de Macario Romero [The Truth about Macario Romero] (1912),
courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-DIG-ppmsc-04557].
Handbills printed with the lyrics to popular corridos were often sold to audiences for a small fee. This broadside features an illustration by José Guadalupe Posada.

[7505] Anonymous, Music in Mexican Isurrecto Camp (1911),
courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USZ62-115488].
This photo emphasizes the close relationship between music and politics in the borderlands as musicians and armed men pose in a Revolutionary camp during the Mexican Civil War.

[9064] Anonymous, El Corrido de Gregorio Cortez (c. 1910),
courtesy of Pedro Rocha and Lupe Martìnez.
This corrido takes as its subject the murder of an Anglo-Texan sheriff by a Texas Mexican, Gregorio Cortez, and the ensuing chase, capture, and imprisonment of Cortez. It formed the basis for Americo Paredes’ novel, With a Pistol in His Hand.

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American Passages: A Literary Survey


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